In August 2014, the long-standing and tainted London Silver Fixing daily auction was replaced by a newly launched London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) Silver Price daily auction. Similarly, in March 2015, the infamous London Gold Fixing daily auctions were replaced by revised twice daily LBMA Gold Price auctions.
In both cases, the new auctions, which the LBMA were quick to maintain control over, were trumpeted by the bullion bank controlled LBMA as ushering in an era of improved transparency in gold and silver price discovery within the London Gold and Silver Markets, a marketplace which dominates in setting the international gold and silver prices.
The LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions are both critical to the world of precious metals, because they derive benchmark reference prices for gold and silver which are used extensively in the valuation of everything from Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) to OTC precious metals contracts.
The benchmarks are also used as reference prices in all sorts of transactions from sophisticated wholesale market transactions of central banks, refiners and miners, to small quantity gold and silver coin purchases in bullion dealer shops all over the world.
Both benchmarks are also ‘Regulated Benchmarks’ under UK financial market regulations as “policed” by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).
It was therefore surprising that last week on 1 March, ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA), the administrators of the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions, issued a ‘Notification’ announcing that from 1 April 2018:
“the LBMA Gold and Silver Prices will not be available on the LBMA website until midnight London time on the date that the prices are set.“
More extensive quotes from the IBA Notification are as follows:
“Please note that effective 1 April 2018, the arrangements for delayed redistribution of the LBMA Gold Price and the LBMA Silver Price will change so that the delay period increases from 30 and 15 minutes to midnight London time.”
“delayed prices are available with no monthly fee, currently with a delay of 30 minutes from publication for the LBMA Gold Price and 15 minutes from publication for the LBMA Silver Price.”
“Any public websites that display the LBMA Gold Price and the LBMA Silver Price (currently with a 30 minute and 15 minute delay respectively) will be required to delay prices to midnight London time.”
So instead of a 30 minute delay, starting on 1 April (April Fool’s Day) the price for the morning LBMA Gold Price auction will not be available until about 14 and a half hours after the auction completes.
For the afternoon LBMA Gold Price auction, the price will only be available to the public about 9 hours after the auction finishes. For the LBMA Silver Price auction, the lag time on the public being able to see the daily reference price will now be 12 hours instead of 15 minutes. That’s a whopping 40 times longer. If only this was an April Fools joke. Alas, it’s not.
Any rational person would therefore conclude that the changes to the auctions being forced in by ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) can only be described as torpedoing the concepts of price transparency and price discovery.
It should also be remembered that although IBA is the auction administrator, IBA would never make these publication time changes without the blessing of the LBMA, since the LBMA is the intellectual property owner of the benchmarks and the ultimate authority on these benchmarks as well as the gatekeeper on who can take part in these auctions.
“The revised arrangements for delayed redistribution of the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price… recently announced by ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA)… are consistent with the timing of the publication of the LBMA Platinum and Palladium prices.”
As a reminder, the LBMA also controls the worldwide pricing for platinum and palladium through the LBMA Platinum Price auction and the LBMA Palladium Price auctions, both of which were awarded to the London Metal Exchange by the LBMA in 2014 during a secretive and non-competitive tender process.
The publication time (to the public) of the platinum and palladium prices is indeed midnight on the day the auctions occur. As the LBMA website states:
“Since 13 July 2015, the prices on the LBMA’s website are displayed with a delay until midnight following the setting of the prices each day.”
Why the worldwide platinum and palladium user base is not up in arms about these platinum and palladium price delays, only they can answer. But it is certainly a spin too far to think that anyone will accept the warped alchemy of the LBMA that because the LBMA Platinum and Palladium prices are ‘freely’ published only at midnight, that somehow this validates the decision of the IBA / LBMA to also roll back transparency in the LBMA Gold and Silver auctions to midnight.
Overall, this price publication time rollback is farcical, but not surprising in the world of the LBMA where black is white and where a step backwards is spun as a step forwards. This development might also be humorous if it wasn’t so important. Especially as the changes are being implemented on 1 April, April Fool’s Day! But the auction prices are important and also very influential in the global gold and silver markets. Hence, it is no laughing matter.
London Gold and Silver Trade Reporting: Not in Your Lifetime
Apart from the regressive step on LBMA auction price timing which will make the London gold and silver markets more opaque, the lack of Trade Reporting for London gold and silver trades is another area that continues to shroud the London Gold and Silver Markets in a virtual blanket of secrecy. That’s right, there are no trades reported in the London gold and silver markets. Zero. And there never have been any trades reported in the London gold and silver markets.
With no trade data, there is no market efficiency. How could there be any market efficiency when the market cannot analyse the trades that have taken place? Insider bullion banks are therefore free to trade gold and silver in the knowledge that the global markets don’t know what the insiders are doing. This also applies to the central banks in the London Gold Market in their buying and selling and lending and swaps transactions. So the London Gold and Silver Markets are not ‘Fair’.
At the end of January, I wrote an article titled “What’s Happening (or Not) at the LBMA: Some Updates” which in part discussed the broken promises on trade reporting made by the LBMA over the last 2-3 years, and the complete lack of progress that the LBMA has made on actually publishing any trade data to the Market. As early as January 2015 (over 3 year ago), the LBMA stated to the UK Regulator’s “Fair and Effective Markets Review” (FEMR) at that time that it would:
“welcome further transparency through post trade reporting, providing the industry with data that at the moment does not exist for the bullion market.”
During the course the next 3 years, the LBMA made many promises about publishing this trade reporting data, none of which came to pass.
For example, in February 2016 for trade reporting, the LBMA claimed that there was a “target delivery date in the second half of 2016”. This never happened.
The next broken promise, made at the LBMA annual conference in October 2016 claimed that”Phase 1 will focus on reporting and will launch in Q1 2017. This reporting covers all Loco London Spot, forward & option trading.” This never materialised.
This was followed by a litany of further promises during 2017 from the LBMA CEO, the LBMA Chairman and the LBMA Legal Counsel that all promised a publication date for trade reporting of early 2018. In May 2017, the LBMA CEO said that “Reporting will begin later this year in a phased approach and, following a period of quality checking the data, it is expected that it will be published in early 2018.“
In August 2017, the LBMA Chainman said that “it is expected that the first data will be published in early 2018“. At the LBMA’s annual conference in October 2017 in Barcelona, the LBMA’s Legal Counsel said that “the data will then be aggregated and published but not until Q1 2018.“
Now that the first quarter 2018 has come and nearly gone, you can probably guess what has happened. The correct answer is …nothing has happened, with the LBMA again totally disregarding its own promises and now unbelievably shifting the trade reporting publication date out an entire year more to “early 2019“. You couldn’t make this up.
And as per usual, there was no LBMA press release about this further delay, only a small reference buried in the back of the latest issue of its in-house magazine, The Alchemist. As per the reference:
“Many members have already begun to report their trades to the LBMA-i platform and many members are being on-boarded. The reporting process will continue during 2018 with a view to establishing a robust data set which will be published in early 2019“.
Nothing more can be said about this trade reporting fiasco other than it must be obvious to everyone that the LBMA and its bullion bank members do not want the transparency that gold and silver trade reporting would provide. Otherwise they would not have spent 4 years on a project which any individual investment bank could start and complete within less than 3 months.
As I said in the conclusion of my January commentary on this topic:
“In this extremely long drawn out exercise by the LBMA, it must be clear by now that the LBMA and its trading members are engaging in this trade reporting project on their own terms, and with little regard for the spirit and recommendations of the Fair and Efficient Markets Review. There is also a trend of missed deadlines, broken promises, and a lack of explanation for the delays.“
To this you can now add another year (to early 2019). Will we be saying the same thing in early 2019, of more missed deadlines? Based on the LBMA’s track record, any bookie worth their salt would probably say ‘Yes’.
On 29 August, the London Metal Exchange (LME) began publication of a set of daily reference prices for gold and silver. These reference prices aim to capture and reflect paper gold and silver market prices as at 10:30 am, 12:00 midday, and 3:00 pm London time.
Anyone familiar with the former London gold and silver fix auctions, or the successor LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions, will know that the LBMA gold auction is conducted twice daily at 10:30 am and 3.00 pm London time, while the silver auction is held once daily at midday. These auctions are also for unallocated book entry gold and silver (paper gold and silver) in the London market. ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) is the auction administrator for both of these LBMA auctions.
As these new reference prices published by the London Metal Exchange are timed to report ‘market’ prices for gold and silver at exactly the same times as the LBMA Gold and LBMA Silver auctions, they add an element of future competition between the LME and ICE in the benchmark price provision business. However, the LME’s prices for both gold and silver are calculated at each of the 3 times of the ICE / LBMA auctions, i.e. at 10:30am (LBMA morning gold auction), 12:00 (LBMA silver auction) and 3:00pm (LBMA afternoon gold auction), periods which the LME describes as having ‘peak liquidity’.
In July 2017, the LME launched a suite of gold and silver futures contracts (LME Gold and LME Silver) for the London market, 2 of which are Spot daily contracts in gold and silver, respectively. Under the hood, these new gold and silver daily reference prices published by the LME are just volume weighted average prices (VWAP) of these LME Gold and LME Silver spot contracts calculated over a 2 minute window at the relevant times each day (i.e. 10:30 am, midday, and 3:00 pm) based on trades on the LMEselect trading platform. These contracts also represent claims on unallocated book entry paper gold and silver in the London market.
Therefore, the LME reference prices are not based on any auction trades, and merely use prices ‘discovered’ (generated) on the LME’s own trading platform at the time of the LBMA / ICE auctions. Given that these new LME reference prices only began to be published on 29 August, there are only about 50 daily data points so far for each of gold and silver. All prices since 29 August can be seen on the LME website for gold and silver.
Different But Similar
But are these LME prices the same as those generated by the ICE / LBMA daily auctions? No, they are not the same, but they are similar. The reason both sets of prices are not the same is that they are derived differently. The LBMA price resulting from an auction is the price derived in the final round of an auction when the imbalance between the auction’s buy and sell volumes is in tolerance (less than 10,000 ounces). The LME reference prices are average prices calculated (and volume weighted) using trades executed on the LME’s trading platform over a 2 minute interval from the start of an auction until 2 minutes after the start of an auction.
The LBMA auction prices and the LME reference prices are similar in that they are both based on market activity over similar time periods within the wholesale gold and silver markets, and in practice (or at least in theory), arbitrage trading should act to keep prices in the OTC market, and in the LBMA auctions, and in COMEX precious metals futures trading, and in LME gold and silver futures trading in line with each other.
Like their predecessors the London Gold fix and London Silver fix, the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price are used every day to value everything from ISDA contracts to gold-backed ETFs, and the daily auction prices are also referenced widely in the global precious metals industry to execute trades involving miners, refineries, bullion banks, central banks, jewellers and coin shops. In short, these LBMA gold and silver reference prices are the dominant incumbent reference prices, and they also qualify as Regulated Benchmarks regulated by the UK Financial Conduct Authority. But will anyone end up using these new LME precious metals reference prices? Possibly, but it could it a while.
In 2018, the LME intends to offer trading based on its new gold and reference price reference levels. According to a Reuters article from 10 October:
“As of mid-2018 participants will be able to trade at those prices, Chamberlain [LME CEO] said, with technology being developed to match buy and sell orders for execution at the settlement price.
‘Benchmarks take a long time to evolve,’ he said. ‘What we can do is put in place the infrastructure, show that we have day after day of robust prices, but ultimately it is for end-users to decide what they want to use.'”
Being able to trade at the LME reference prices will add more relevance to the published numbers and could add legitimacy in terms of market data and financial media interest.
Right now the LME gold and silver reference prices are published daily and are “available for market participants to use free of charge.” But real world usage in the sense of being used to value precious metals funds, contracts or transactions looks to be a case of “down the road” rather than today.
Ideally the London gold and silver markets do not need an additional benchmark reflecting fractionally-backed unallocated gold and silver trading, but a benchmark and reference price reflecting the trading of real physical gold and silver. However, as the LME has chosen not to upset the status quo of the London unallocated trading system, a system which remains one of the key determinants of the international gold price, then real physical gold and silver reference prices in the London market will unfortunately remain a pipe dream.
Sometime in the coming days, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) plans to begin publishing gold and silver vault holding totals covering the network of commercial precious vault operators in London that fall under its remit. This follows an announcement made by the LBMA on 8 May.
There are seven commercial vault operators (custodians) in the LBMA custodian vault network namely, HSBC, JP Morgan, Brinks, Malca Amit, ICBC Standard Bank, Loomis (formerly Viamat), and G4S. Note that ICBC Standard Bank has a vault which is operated by Brinks on behalf of ICBC Standard. It is also quite possible that some of the HSBC vaults, such as the famous GLD gold vault, are located within Brinks facilities.
Adding in the Bank of England gold vaults under the Bank of England’s head office in the City of London, the LBMA vaulting network comprises eight sets of vaults. However, the Bank of England vaults do not store silver, or at least there is no evidence that the Bank of England stores silver. However, the other 7 vault operators can and do store silver, or at least most of them do. It’s unclear whether the G4S vault stores anything on behalf of anyone, but that’s a different story.
The forthcoming LBMA vault data will represent actual physical gold and silver holdings, i.e. real tangible precious metals, as opposed to the intangible and gargantuan paper gold and paper silver trading volumes generated each day in the London precious metals markets.
The LBMA will report physical holdings data on an aggregated basis for each of gold and silver, i.e. one quantity number will be reported each month for vaulted gold, and one quantity number will be reported each month for vaulted silver. The LBMA data will be on a 3-month lagged basis. For example, if the LBMA begins reporting this data in early July (which it probably will), then the first set of data will refer to the end of March period.
The uncertainty as to when the LBMA will begin to publish its vault holdings data is purely because the LBMA has not provided a specific publication commencement date. At first, the LBMA announced that the reporting would begin “in the summer”. Subsequently, it announced that it’s vault reporting would begin in July.
As to whether the LBMA vault holdings numbers published each month will include or exclude the Bank of England gold vaults holdings is also unclear. At the end of April, the Bank of England went ahead and separately began to publish vault holdings numbers for its own gold vaults, also on a 3-month lagged basis. More information on this Bank of England initiative can be read in BullionStar blog “Bank of England releases new data on its gold vault holdings”
Incidentally, the Bank of England has now updated its website (updated 30 June) with the gold holdings figure for its vaults as of the end of March, and is reporting total physical gold holdings of 163.36 million troy ounces, which equates to 5081 tonnes of gold.
When the LBMA begins to publish its numbers, it will be clear as to whether the LBMA gold number includes the Bank of England gold holdings or not, and this will probably even be specified in a footnote of the report. Excluding the Bank of England vaults (or at least the non-loaned gold in the Bank of England vaults which is not under the title of bullion banks), the remaining lion’s share of the LBMA’s gold holdings number comprises gold held by Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) in London.
“The HSBC vault in London holds gold on behalf of the SPDR Gold Trust (currently 853 tonnes) and ETF Securities (about 215 tonnes). The JP Morgan gold vault in London holds gold on behalf of ETFs run by iShares (about 210 tonnes in London), Deutsche Bank (95 tonnes), and Source (100 tonnes). An ABSA ETF holds about 36 tonnes of gold with Brinks in London. In total, these ETFs represent about 1510 tonnes of gold.”
The approach used to calculate the gold stored by these ETFs in the London vaults can be seen in the article “Tracking the gold held in London: An update on ETF and BoE holdings”. To this 1510 tonnes gold figure we can add gold held on behalf of customers of BullionVault and GoldMoney – which is roughly 12 tonnes of gold between them (4.75 tonnes for GoldMoney, and 7.2 tonnes of gold for BullionVault).
When the LBMA publishes its first gold total for gold held in its vault network, it will also be clear as to whether the LBMA vaults hold any significant amount of physical gold above and beyond the gold allocated within the gold-backed ETFs. There may be some gold tonnage held on an allocated basis by the LBMA bullion banks as a ‘float’, and also some gold held in allocated form by various institutional investors such as hedge funds, but my hunch is that this residual gold will be at most a respectable fraction of the amount of gold stored on behalf of ETFs in London.
However, the silver holdings in the LBMA vault network are a different kettle of fish entirely, and in addition to ETF holdings (which are reported), there could be significant silver holdings in the London vaults which have gone unreported up until now (unreported silver in the form of what consultancy GFMS calls ‘Custodian Vault’ holdings).
Although gold usually generates the most headlines, it’s important not to forget about silver, and the fact that this new LBMA reporting will also provide a monthly aggregated total for the amount of physical silver held in the LBMA vaulting network in London. The silver stored in these LBMA vaults is in the form of variable weight London Good Delivery silver bars.
Since silver has a lower value to weight ratio than gold and is bulkier to store, silver a) takes up more room and b) can be stored in secure warehouses rather than ultra-high secure vaults that are used to store gold. This is particularly true in expensive cities such as London where it is more economical to store silver in locations with lower commercial rental values.
In the LBMA vaulting network, London Good Delivery silver bars are stored 30 bars per pallet, i.e. a formation of 10 bars stacked 3 bars high. Since each bar weighs approximately 1000 oz, each pallet will weigh about 30,000 ozs, i.e. each pallet would weigh about 1 tonne.
At this stage, can we arrive at an estimate of the minimum amount of silver currently held in the LBMA London vaulting network? The answer is yes, for the simple reason that, in a similar manner to gold-backed ETFs, a substantial number of silver-backed ETFs also hold their silver in the vaults of London-based precious metals vaulting custodians, and these ETFs publicly report their silver bar holdings.
In addition, BullionVault and GoldMoney (which are not ETFs), both hold silver with one of the custodians in the LBMA vaulting network – Loomis. But I have included the BullionVault and GoldMoney silver totals below purely because even though they are non-ETF custodian vault holdings, both companies’ silver holdings are publicly reported on their websites.
However, there is probably also a lot more additional silver held in the London vaults above and beyond the silver bars allocated to ETFs and the known silver stored by GoldMoney and BullionVault. Some of this additional silver falls under what Thomson Reuters GFMS classify as ‘Custodian Vault‘ silver, which is silver that is basically in an ‘Unreported’ category but which Thomson Reuters GFMS seems to think it knows about through its own ‘proprietary surveys’ and ‘field research’. This ‘Custodian Vault’ silver probably accounts for a substantial amount of silver in the London vaults. However, it is difficult to know because GFMS does not provide granularity on its numbers beyond an overall ‘Europe’ number. But I have made some assumptions about this ‘Custodian Vault’ silver in London, which is discussed in a final section below.
For the silver-backed ETFs, the first step is to identify which silver ETFs hold silver bars in the LBMA vaults in London. Using the list of silver ETF providers specified on Nick Laird’s GoldChartsRUs website (subscription only), the platform providers and their ETFs which hold silver in the LBMA vaults in London are as follows:
iShares: 1 ETF
ETF Securities: 6 ETFs
SOURCE : 1 ETF
Deutsche Bank: 3 ETFs
Between them, these four providers offer 11 ETFs that hold some or all of their silver in LBMA London vaults. This silver is held with custodians JP Morgan and HSBC, and with sub-custodians, Brinks and Malca Amit. Note, that GoldMoney and BullionVault store silver in London with Loomis as custodian.
As publicly traded vehicles, most of these ETFs publish daily silver bar weight lists or holdings files and they also undergo twice yearly physical audits by independent auditors. These weight lists and audits documents are helpful in pinpointing who the custodians and sub-custodians are, which locations these silver ETF’s store their silver in, and how much silver (in silver bar form) is stored in each location.
iShares Silver Trust (SLV)
The iShares Silver Trust, ticker code SLV, is the world’s largest silver-backed ETF. It’s probably best to think of SLV as the silver equivalent of the mammoth SPDR Gold Trust (GLD).
The custodian for SLV is JP Morgan Chase Bank (London Branch), and Brinks also acts as a sub-custodian for SLV. SLV holds silver in vaults across both London and New York. According to the SLV daily silver bar weight list, SLV’s silver bars are held in two Brinks vaults in London, one JP Morgan vault in London, and one JP Morgan vault in New York.
As of 29 June 2017, SLV reported that it was holding 348,841 Good Delivery silver bars containing a total of 339.89 million troy ounces of silver, or a colossal 10,572 tonnes of silver. The actual SLV bar list, which is uploaded to a JP Morgan website in pdf format using the same filename each day, can be seen here, but be warned that the file is about 5370 pages long, so there’s no real need to open it unless you are curious. A screenshot of the top of the first page is provided below
The SLV weight list specifies that the SLV silver is held in a ‘Brinks London‘ vault, a ‘Brinks London C‘ vault, a ‘JPM London V‘ vault, and a ‘JPM New York‘ vault. Between them, 2 Brinks vaults in London hold 55% of SLV’s silver bars representing 5753 tonnes, or 54% of the silver held in SLV. Adding in the ‘JPM London V‘ vault means that 289,053 silver bars, weighing 8720 tonnes (or 82% of SLV’s entire silver holdings) are held in LBMA London vaults.
The auditor for SLV is Inspectorate. Interestingly, the latest Inspectorate letter for SLV, for record date 10 February 2017, does not make a distinction between the 2 Brinks vaults in London and just reports that SLV’s silver is in:
“Three vaults located in and around London and New York:
– two vaults owned and operated by JP Morgan Chase Bank N.A. with 124,054 bars
– one vault owned and operated by Brinks, as a sub-custodian for JP Morgan Chase Bank N.A. with 220,066 bars
This would suggest that Inspectorate does not see the need to distinguish between the “Brinks London” vault and the “Brinks London C” vault, presumably because both Brinks vaults are in the same building in the Brinks facility (which is beside Heathrow Airport).
Even though the official custodian for SLV is JP Morgan Chase Bank N.A., London Branch (see original SLV Custodian Agreement filed April 2006 here), since it’s launch in 2006 SLV has at different times used quite a diverse group of sub-custodian vaults as well as at least 3 JP Morgan vaults. For example, over the 3 year period from early 2010 to early 2013, SLV stored silver in the following vaults:
Johnston Matthey, Royston
Brinks London A
Brinks London C
Viamat (now known as Loomis)
JP Morgan London A
JP Morgan London V
JP Morgan New York
Royston is about 50 miles north of central London. The above list is taken from the following chart which is from the ScrewTape Files website.
Given that there are Brinks vaults in London named ‘Brinks London‘, ‘Brinks London A‘, and ‘Brinks London C‘, this would most likely imply that there is or was also a ‘Brinks London B‘ vault, which, for whatever reason, doesn’t show up in any ETF custodian documentation.
The naming convention of the JP Morgan vaults in London as ‘JPM London A‘ and ‘JPM London V‘ is also interesting. SLV silver started being taken out of the ‘JPM London A’ vault in February 2012, and this vault was depleted of 100 million ounces of SLV silver (~ 3100 tonnes) by October 2012 (blue line in above chart). At the same time, the SLV silver inventory in the ‘Brinks London’ vault ramped up by 100 million ounces of SLV silver also between February 2012 and October 2012.
JPM London A could be JP Morgan’s original vault in the City of London. This would then make the JPM London V vault a separate location. My pet theory (pet rock theory) is that the V in the ‘JPM London V’ could refer to Viamat International, which is now known as Loomis. JP Morgan could have outsourced storage of silver to Viamat by ring-fencing some vault space. JP Morgan could then call this space a JP Morgan vault, even though it would be physically within a location managed by one of the security storage / transport providers.
I now think on balance that HSBC probably took the same approach with its gold vault and has it located in a Brinks facility, but that it calls it a HSBC vault. This could also mean that HSBC uses Brinks to store silver, while referring to it as HSBC storage. As to whether HSBC and JP Morgan store gold at the Bank of England while labelling it as a HSBC or JP Morgan storage area is another interesting question, but is beyond the scope of discussion here.
Note, there is also an iShares Silver Bullion Fund known as SVR which uses Scotia Mocatta as a custodian, which as of 29 June held 2,154 silver bars, however, SVR mostly holds its silver bars mostly in Toronto with Scotia, with a small number of silver bars stored with Scotia in New York. SVR therefore does not store any silver bars in London. See latest SVR weight list here.
ETF Securities – 6 ETFs
Keeping track of all the silver-backed ETFs offered by ETF Securities is challenging to say the least, but in the below discussion I’ve tried to devise a system which will make things at least a little clearer.
ETF Securities operates 6 ETFs which hold physical silver bars that are stored in the LBMA precious metals vaulting network in London. Of these 6 ETFS, 3 of them hold silver bars and nothing else. The other 3 ETFs are precious metals baskets which hold ‘physical’ gold, silver, platinum and palladium. Two of these ETFs are domiciled in the UK, 2 are domiciled in Australia, and the other 2 are domiciled in the US. In each of the UK, Australia and the US, ETF Securities offers 1 silver ETF and 1 precious metals basket ETF.
It’s most convenient to refer to the codes of these ETFs when discussing them. The 2 UK domiciled ETFs, with codes PHAG (silver) and PHPM (precious metals basket), are positioned under a company called ETFS Metal Securities Limited (MSL). The 2 ETFs domiciled in Australia, with codes PMAG (silver) and PMPM (precious metals basket), fall under a company called ETFS Metal Securities Australia Limited (MSAL). The final 2, which are US domiciled, are known as SILV (silver) and GLTR (precious metals basket).
ETFS Metal Securities Limited (MSL) – PHAG and PHPM
ETFS Physical Silver (PHAG) has a primary listing on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) and trades in USD. It’s NAV is also in USD. The custodian for PHAG is HSBC Bank Plc, with a listed vault location of London. Note: There is also another variant of PHAG called PHSP. It’s the same security as PHAG (same ISIN) but its trades in GBP (and its NAV is calculated in GBP). Its best to ignore PHSP as it’s literally the same fund.
ETFS Physical PM Basket (PHPM) is a precious metals Basket ETF that also holds gold, platinum, and palladium, in addition to silver. The custodian is HSBC Bank Plc with a vault location in London. There is also a GBP variant of PHPM called PHPP. Again, just ignore PHPP in this analysis.
ETFS Metal Securities Limited (MSL) officially reports all of its precious metals holdings in the same report (which it reports on each trading day). Since PHAG and PHPM are part of MSL, PHAG and PHPM silver bar holdings are reported together. According to the MSL weight list, as of 30 June 2017, MSL held 62,427 London Good delivery silver bars containing 60,280,155 troy ounces of silver(1875 tonnes). The individual ETFs within MSL also report their own holdings. However, there is a slight mismatch between dates on the individual fund pages and the date in the MSL spreadsheet with PHAG and PHPM reporting 29 June, while MSL has reported 30 June.
It’s not a big deal though. As of 29 June, PHAG held 58,777,148 troy ozs of silver (1828.2 tonnes) and PHPM held 1,480,037 troy ozs of silver (46 tonnes), which together is 60,257,185 troy ounces of silver (1874.25 tonnes), which is very close to the MSL reported number. Overall, PHAG holds 97.5% of the silver that is held in MSL, and PHPM only holds about 2.5% of the silver held in MSL.
Now, here’s the crux. While MSL uses HSBC Bank Plc in London as custodian for its silver, HSBC also uses Malca Amit London as sub-custodian, and the Malca Amit vault holds more than twice the amount of MSL silver (i.e. predominantly PHAG silver) than the HSBC vault. MSL’s reported silver holding are distributed as per the following table:
MSL holds 62,427 London Good Delivery silver bars in LBMA vaults in London, containing 60.28 million ounces of silver (1875 tonnes of silver). The Malca Amit vault stores 42,917 of these bars (1283 tonnes), and a HSBC vault stores another 19,510 silver bars (592 tonnes).
Inspectorate is also the independent auditor for the silver held by MSL. According to the latest Inspectorate audit letter, dated 3 March 2017 but referring to an end audit date of 31 December 2016, the silver in MSL was held in the vaults of HSBC Bank plc, London and at the vaults of Malca-AmitLondon.
ETFS Metal Secs. Australia Ltd (MSAL) – PMAG & PMPM
ETFS Physical Silver (PMAG), domiciled in Australia, is an ETF which only holds silver, and holds this silver in London with custodian HSBC Bank plc at a vault location in London. Note: ETF Securities officially refers to PMAG as ETPMAG.
ETFS Physical PM basket (PMPM) is a precious metals Basket ETF that also holds gold, platinum, and palladium, in addition to silver. The custodian of PMPM is HSBC Bank plc with a vault location in London. Note: ETF Securities officially refers to PMPM as ETPMPM.
In a similar way to UK domiciled MSL, MSAL (the ETFS Australian company) reports on all of its precious metals holdings in one daily spreadsheet including the silver in PMAG and PMPM. As of 30 June 2017, MSAL held 2754 silver bars in a HSBC vault in London, containing 2,664,690 troy ounces of silver (82.88 tonnes of silver).
Of the 2,664,690 ounces of silver held by MSAL, over 98%, or 2617,229 ounces, is held by PMAG, with less than 2% held in PMPM (47,362 ounces). The actual figures are 98.22% vs 1.78%. This means that PMAG roughly holds 2705 silver bars, and PMPM holds 49 silver bars.
Inspectorate is, not surprisingly, also the independent auditor for MSAL’s metal holdings, and as per the latest audit letter for record date 31 December 2016, the silver bars audit location is stated as having been “HSBC Bank plc, London“.
The latest silver bar weight list spreadsheet for the ETFS Silver Trust (SIVR), dated 29 June, which is titled “HSBC US Silver Bar List”, states that the SIVR Trust holds 21,437 silver bars containing 20,363,315 troy ozs of silver (633.4 tonnes of silver). There is no mention of SIVR holding any of its silver with a sub-custodian. The latest independent audit report for SIRV, by Inspectorate, for an audit reference date of 31 December 2016, states that the audit took place “at the vault of HSBC Bank plc, London (the “Custodian”)“, where Inspectorate found “20,108 London Good Delivery Silver Bars with a weight of 19,171,492.300 troy ounces.”
The latest silver bar weight list for the ETFS Precious Metals Basket Trust (GLTR), also dated 29 June, and which is titled “JPM Precious Metals Basket Bar List“, states that the GLTR Trust holds 5,670 silver bars containing 5,496,035 ozs of silver (~ 171 tonnes of silver).
However, while 85% of these bars (144.5 tones of silver) are stored in the ‘JP Morgan V‘ vault, 15% of the silver bars (26.5 tonnes of silver) are stored in a ‘Brinks 2‘ vault. So according to GLTR naming convention, as there is a ‘Brinks 2’ vault, presumably when it was first named, there was also a ‘Brinks 1’. ‘Brinks 2’ could possibly be referring to the same location as the ‘Brinks London A’ vault.
Inspectorate is also the independent auditor for the precious metals held by GLTR. In the latest Inspectorate audit letter for GLTR, with an audit reference date of 31 December 2016, Inspectorate states that its audit was only conducted “at the vault of J.P. Morgan Chase N.A, London (the “Custodian”)” where it counted “4,873 London Good Delivery Silver Bars“. This probably means that GLTR’s holdings of silver bars in the ‘Brinks 2’ vault are quite recent, i.e. they have been acquired since 31 December 2016.
SOURCE – Physical Silver P-ETC
A silver-backed ETF offered by the ETF provider ‘SOURCE’, which is named the Physical Silver P-ETC, holds its silver bars in a London vault of custodian JP Morgan. The SOURCE ETF platform was originally established in 2008 as a joint venture between Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch.
The latest silver bar weight list for the Physical Silver P-ETC (dated 23 June) states that it holds 3,129,326 troy ounces of silver (97.34 tonnes of silver). The list does not state an exact bar count, but looking at the weight list, there are about 3,237 silver bars listed.
Inspectorate is also the independent auditor for the Physical silver P-ETC. The latest Inspectorate audit letter, conducted on 4 January 2017, states that at that time, this ETF held 2,048 silver bars containing 1,982,343 troy ounces of silver. This is interesting because about a week ago, this SOURCE Physical silver P-ETC held about 4 million ozs of silver. Now it holds 3.1 million ounces of silver, and at the start of the year it held under 2 million ounces of silver. So the quantity of silver held in this SOURCE silver ETF fluctuates quite dramatically.
Deutsche Bank ETFs
There are 3 ETCs listed on the Exchange Traded Commodity (ETC) section of the Deutsche Asset Management website which hold physical silver in London. These 3 ETCs are as follows:
db Physical Silver ETC
db Physical Silver ETC (EUR)
db Physical Silver Euro hedged ETC
The Factsheets for these 3 Deutsche ETCs all list the custodian as “Deutsche Bank”, but list the sub-custodian as “JP Morgan Chase Bank”. For example, the Factsheet for the db Physical Silver ETCstates
“Custodian/Sub-custodian: Deutsche Bank AG/JP Morgan Chase Bank N.A.”
Shockingly, there do not seem to be any recent independent audit documents for any of these Deutsche ETCs anywhere on the Deutsche Asset Management website. The latest ‘Inventory Audit’ document in the ‘Download Center’ of the website is dated November 2012. That audit document can be viewed here. The old audit document stated that on 25 September 2012, ‘DB ETC Plc’ held 13,314 silver bars containing 13,040,194.3 troy ounces of silver (405.6 tonnes of silver), and that the audit was conducted at ‘Custodian and Location‘ of ‘JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A. London‘. I have scanned the entire website and there is no sign of any other audit documents or any silver bar weight list.
The initial metal entitlement for units issued in each of these 3 ETCs was 10 troy ounces per unit. The latest units issued figures from Deutsche (dated 22 June 2017) for these ETCs is as follows:
db Physical Silver ETC: 277, 500 units issued
db Physical Silver ETC (EUR): 533,000 units issued
db Physical Silver Euro hedged ETC: 878,000 units issued
Total units issued for silver-backed db ETCs = 1,688,500 units
This would mean that in total, these 3 ETCs would have had an initial metal entitlement of 16,885,000 troy ounces of silver. However, due to what looks like operational fees being offset against the metal in these ETCs (i.e. selling silver to pay fund expenses), the effective metal entitlement for each of the 3 ETCs is now stated on the Deutsche website as being less than 10 troy ounces.
For db Physical Silver ETC, the entitlement is 9.6841 ounces. For db Physical Silver ETC, the entitlement is 9.6930 ounces and for db Physical Silver Euro hedged ETC the metal entitlement is a very low 7.9893 ounces.
Therefore, the amount of silver backing these ETCs looks to be (277500 * 9.6841) + (533000 * 9.693) + (878000 * 7.9893) = 14,868,312 troy ounces = 462.5 tonnes. Since there is no bar count, an approximate bar count assuming each bar weighs 1000 oz would be 14,870 Good Delivery silver bars.
Since there are no audit reports and no silver bar weight list for these ETCs, it’s difficult to know if real allocated silver in the form of London Good Delivery silver bars is backing these Deutsche Bank db ETCs, let alone trying to figure how many silver bars are in a JP Morgan vault in London backing these Deutsche products. We can therefore use 462.5 tonne for Deutche but with a caveat that there is no current silver bar weight lists or independent audit documents.
Total ETF Silver held in London LBMA Vaults
Adding up the silver held in the 11 ETFs profiled above yields the following table. In total, the 11 ETFs hold approximately 12,041 tonnes of silver (387.2 million troy ounces) across 4 vault operators. Brinks vaults hold 48% of the total, and JP Morgan vaults hold another 30%. HSBC and Malca Amit hold about 11% each of the remainder.
ETF Silver Holdings – Tonnes, for Silver stored in London LBMA Vaults
In terms of London Good Delivery silver bars, these 11 ETFs hold approximately 400,000 of these silver bars. Since the 3 Deutsche ETFs (ETCs) don’t have an available bar list, I converted the assumed troy ounce holdings to bar totals by assuming each bar held weighs 1000 ozs. Brinks stores over 191,000 of these Good delivery silver bars. That equates to nearly 6,400 pallets with 30 silver bars per pallet. If the pallets were stacked 6 high, and arranged in a square, that would be an area 32 pallets long by about 33 pallets wide. In addition, Brinks may also store silver on behalf of HSBC, or even on behalf of JP Morgan. Who knows?
According to the latest numbers on the BullionVault website (Daily Audit), BullionVault has 349,939.57 kgs of silver stored in London. That equates to 11,250,557 troy ozs of silver, or 350 tonnes of silver. This silver is stored in the form of London Good Delivery Silver Bars. According to the BullionVault website, BullionVault use Loomis as a custodian for storing silver bars in London:
Those with a BullionVault login can go in and view BullionVault’s latest silver bar weight list which has been generated by Loomis, but BullionVault don’t allow this list to be published externally. Suffice to say, the latest list, dated 11 May, lists 11,544 silver bars which are stored across nearly 400 pallets.
The GoldMoney website has a real-time audit page which currently states that GoldMoney has 202,057.614 kgs of silver. That equates to 6,496,153 troy ozs of silver, or 202 tonnes of silver stored in London. This silver is also stored with Loomis. At least some of this silver and probably a lot of it is in the form of London Good Delivery silver bars. Without being able to log in to the site properly, it’s not possible to see a bar list.
So between them, BullionVault and GoldMoney have 550 tonnes of silver stored in Loomis vaults in London. My guess is that Loomis (formerly Viamat) store precious metals in a warehouse in Shepperton Business Park, Govett Avenue, Shepperton, a warehouse which is in the corner of the business park, beside the railway track.
Adding this 550 tonnes of silver to the 12040 tonnes of silver held by the 11 ETFs above gives a figure of 12,590 tonnes. Let’s call it 12,600 tonnes. This is then the lower bound on the amount of physical silver in the LBMA vaults in London.
Thomson Reuters GFMS – “Custodian Vault” silver
On its ‘Silver Supply’ web page, the Silver Institute website has an interesting data table titled “Identifiable Above-Ground Silver Bullion Stocks” which lists 5 categories of above-ground silver stocks, namely ‘Custodian vaults’, ‘ETPs’, ‘Exchanges’, ‘Government’, and ‘Industry’.
What’s notable and striking about this table is that the ‘Custodian Vaults‘ category for 2016 amounts to a very large 1571.2 million troy ounces of silver (50,440 tonnes), and also the fact that this ‘Custodian vaults’ category is distinct from silver held in ‘Exchanges’ (such as COMEX and TOCOM) and ETPs / ETFs (such as the ETF products discussed above). The ‘Custodian Vaults’ category also does not include ‘Government’ stockpiles or ‘Industry’ inventories. The actual table and the data in the table are sourced from the Thomson Reuters GFMS “World Silver Survey” 2017 edition. As you will see below, this ‘Custodian Category’ refers to holdings of silver which are not reported, but which are stored in custodian vaults, including in the London vaults. This category therefore needs to be examined in the context of the LBMA’s imminent reporting of silver holdings in the LBMA London vaulting system.
You can also see from the above table that this 2016 Custodian Vaults figure of 1571.2 million ozs (50,440 tonnes) grew from a 2008 total of 615.6 million ozs (19,148 tonnes), so in eight years has risen more than 250%.
On pages 37-38 of this GFMS World Silver Survey 2017 (pdf – large file), GFMS makes some very interesting assertions. GFMS starts by defining what it calls Identifiable silver bullion stocks. It states:
‘Identifiable bullion stocks can be split into two categories: unreported GFMS stock estimates that are based on confidential surveys and field research; [and secondly] stocks that are reported.
“Unreported stocks include the lion’s share of our government category and our custodian vault category.”
“Reported inventories are predominantly held in ETPs..but also include some of the government and industry stockpiles.”
However, in the accompanying commentary to the above table, GFMS classifies all ETP, Exchange and Industry holdings as “Reported“, and all Custodian Vaults and Government holdings as “Unreported“. Therefore, it is useful to regroup the 2016 figures from the above table into a Reported category and an Unreported category, as the GFMS commentary then makes more sense. A regrouped table of the 2016 data is as follows, and illustrates that ‘Custodian Vault’ holdings of silver (none of which are reported) account for a whopping 61% of all above ground silver:
A GFMS bar chart in the 2017 World Silver Survey also underscores the dominant position of these (unreported) ‘Custodian Vault’ holdings:
GFMS goes on to say that in 2016 “Reported stocks were 36% of identifiable stocks“. Conversely, we can see that ‘Unreported’ silver stocks (Custodian Vaults and Government) were 64% of identifiable stocks.
GFMS says that for 2016 “71% of reported stocks were ETPs“, the rest being Exchange and Industry classifications. Exchanges refers to silver held in warehouses of COMEX (NY), TOCOM (Japan) and the SGE and SHFE (China). COMEX is currently reporting 209 million ouzs of silver in its approved warehouses in New York, of which 172 million ozs in Eligible and 37 million ozs is in the Registered category.
Interesting, but on a side note, GFMS also states in its 2017 silver report that as regards COMEX silver inventories:
“Eligible stocks reported by COMEX contain a portion that is allocated to ETPs”.
“At the end of 2016, the portion of COMEX Eligible stocks that was allocated to ETPs was around 16% of total COMEX eligible stocks.”
This will probably be an eye opener for those interested in COMEX silver warehouse stocks.
Addressing ‘Custodian Vault‘ stocks of silver, GFMS says that Europe’s share of Custodian Vault stocks was 488.7 million ozs (15,201 tonnes) in 2016 and accounted for 31% of total Custodian Vault stocks. Asian ‘Custodian Vault’ stocks of silver were just over 50% of the total with the remainder in North America (Canada and US).
Silver holdings in Custodian Vaults by Region, 2007 -2016. Source – GFMS World Silver Survey 2017
But what do these ‘Custodian Vault’ stocks of silver refer to?
GFMS does not provide a detailed answer, but merely mentions a number of examples, which themselves vary by region. For Asia GFMS says “the bulk of these stocks are located in China, and reflects stocks held in vaults at banks“, and also ” other parts of Asia, such as Singapore, have been increasing in popularity for storage of bars and coins in recent years“, while in India “global bullion banks increasingly seeking this location as a strategic point for silver vaulting in case the need arises.” There are also silver “stocks in Japan”. From a BullionStar perspective, we certainly are aware that there is a lot of silver bullion in vault storage in Singapore, so the GFMS statement is accurate here.
In North America, GFMS attributes the “growth in silver custodian vaulted stocks not allocated to ETPs” to a “drop in coin sales in North America last year“. In the 2016 edition of the World Silver Survey, GFMS said that the growth in custodian vault holdings was partially due to “the reallocation by some North American investors from their ETP holdings” [into custodian holdings].
Turning to Europe, GFMS says that the growth in Custodian vault silver holdings “can be attributed to increased institutional investor interest“. Therefore, according to GFMS, institutional investors in Europe are buying silver and holding real physical silver in Custodian vaults.
With 488.7 million ozs (15,201 tonnes) of silver held in Europe in ‘Custodian vaults’ that is not reported anywhere, at least some of this silver must be held in London, which is one of the world’s largest financial centers and the world’s highest trading volume silver market.
“Custodian vault stock data excludes ETP Holdings, but it is important to note that most custodians of ETP silver stocks also store silver in vaults that are not allocated to ETPs. the same is true of futures exchange warehouses.”
So how much of this 15,201 tonnes of ‘Custodian Vaults’ silver that is said to be in Europe is actually in London vaults? Apart from London, there would presumably also be significant physical silver holdings vaulted in Switzerland and to a lessor extent in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and maybe Austria etc. So whats’s a suitable percentage for London? Given London’s extensive vaulting network and prominence as a hedge fund and institutional investment centre, a 40-50% share of the European ‘custodian vault’ silver holdings would not be unrealistic, with the other big percentage probably vaulted in Switzerland. This would therefore put previously ‘Unreported’ silver holdings in the London vaults at between 6080 tonnes and 7600 tonnes (or an additional 182,000 to 230,000 Good Delivery Silver bars).
Adding this range of 6080 – 7600 tonnes to the 12,040 tonne figure that the 11 ETFs above hold, gives a total figure of 18,120 – 19,640 tonnes of silver stored in the LBMA vaults in London (545,000 – 585,000 Good Delivery silver bars).
Note, BullionVault and GoldMoney silver is technically part of the ‘Custodian Vault’ figure, so can’t be counted twice.
ps: In its 2017 World Silver Survey, GFMS also stated that in 2016, ETPs (ETFs) held 664.8 million ounces of silver “with 75% of the total custodian vaulted stocks [that were] allocated to ETPs held in Europe and 24% in North America. Asia makes up the balance of less than 1%.“. This would mean that as of the date of the GFMS calculation for 2016, 498.6 million ounces of ETF silver was vaulted in Europe.
Above, I have accounted for 387.1 million ounces of silver that is currently stored in London on behalf of 11 ETFs. There are also 3 Swiss Silver ETFs which store their silver in Switzerland. These are ZKB (currently with 74.9 million ozs), Julius Baer (currently with 13.7 million ozs) and UBS (currently with 5.89 million ozs), giving a total of 94.49 million ozs of silver for these 3 Swiss based platforms. Therefore, between London vaults and vaults in Switzerland, there are currently 14 ETFs that together hold 481.6 million ounces of vaulted silver (14,980 tonnes of vaulted silver).
When the LBMA finally manages to publish its first report on the silver and gold stored in the LBMA vaults in London in the coming days, we will have a clearer picture of how much physical silver is actually in these mysterious and opaque vaults.
A lower bound based on ETF holdings and BullionVault and GoldMoney holdings would be about 12600 tonnes of silver. A higher bound that also reflects ‘Custodian Vault’ holdings could be in the region of 18120 – 19640 tonnes of silver. There would probably also be some LBMA bullion bank float, which may or may not be included in ‘Custodian Vault’ figures, that could push the silver total to over 20,000 tonnes or more.
The LBMA perennially claims that it wants to bring transparency to the London precious metals market. This has been a very hollow mantra for a long time now. However, while some of the LBMA members may want this transparency, others, possibly some of the powerful bullion banks or their clients, certainly don’t want transparency. Take a case in point. At the Asia Pacific Precious Metals Conference (APPMC) in Singapore in early June, the LBMA CEO in a speech to the conference talked about the difficulty of even getting a press release out about the upcoming publication of gold and silver vault holdings data. She said (fast forward to 8:37 in the below video):
“It was actually a huge achievement just to get the press release out.”
For what is supposed to be a mature and efficient financial marketplace, this is a truly bizarre occurrence, and it must be pretty obvious that some of the vested interests in the London gold and silver markets needed to be dragged kicking and screaming over the finish line as regards being in any way open about how much gold and silver is actually in these LBMA London vaults.
But now, according to the LBMA CEO in the same part of her speech, even so-called “credible investors” (as opposed to uncredible investors?) also “find it a little odd that as a marketplace, there’s no data“, which may explain the vampires within the LBMA being dragged into the daylight.
Hopefully with the above analysis and the upcoming aggregated LBMA silver vaulting numbers, these “credible investors” (and the hundreds of millions of other silver investors around the world) will now be less in the dark about the amount of silver in the London LBMA vaulting network, and will now have better information with which to make investment decisions when buying silver and selling silver.
In a bizarre series of events that have had limited coverage but which are sure to have far-reaching consequences for benchmark pricing in the precious metals markets, the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions both experienced embarrassing trading glitches over consecutive trading days on Monday 10 April and Tuesday 11 April. At the outset, its worth remembering that both of these London-based benchmarks are Regulated Benchmarks, regulated by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).
In both cases, the trading glitches had real impact on the benchmark prices being derived in the respective auctions, with the auction prices deviating noticeably from the respective spot prices during the auctions. It’s also worth remembering that the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price reference prices that are ‘discovered’ each day in the daily auctions are used to value everything from gold-backed and silver-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) to precious metals interest rate swaps, and are also used widely as reference prices by thousands of precious metals market participants, such as wholesalers, refineries, and bullion retailers, to value their own bi-lateral transactions.
Although the gold and silver auctions are separately administered, they both suffer from limited direct participation due to the LBMA only authorising a handful of banks to directly take part. Only 7 banks are allowed to participate directly in the Silver auction while the gold auction is only currently open to 14 entities, all of which are banks. Limited participation can in theory cause a lack of trading liquidity. Added to the mix, a central clearing option was introduced to the LBMA Gold Price auction on Monday 10 April, a day before Tuesday’s gold auction screw-up. The introduction of this central clearing process change saw four of the direct participants suspended from the auction since they had not made the necessary system changes in time to process central clearing. This in itself could have caused a drop in liquidity within Tuesday’s gold auction as it reduced the number of possible participants.
Other theories have been put forward to explain the price divergences, such as the banks being unwilling to hedge or arbitrage auction trades due to the advent of more stringent regulatory changes to prevent price manipulation. While this may sound logical in theory, no one, as far as I know, has presented empirical trade evidence to back up this theory. There is also the possibility of deliberate price manipulation of the auction prices by a participant(s) or their clients, a scenario that needs to be addressed and either ruled out or confirmed.
ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA), the administrator of the LBMA Gold Price, also introduced a price calculation Algorithm into the gold auction in mid-March 2017, a change which should also be considered by those seeking to find a valid explanation for the gold auction price divergence where the opening price kept falling through multiple auctions rounds whilst the spot price remained far higher. Could the algorithm have screwed up on 11 April?
Whatever the explanations for the price divergences, these incidents again raise the question as to whether these particular precious metals auctions are fit for purpose, and why they were designed (and allowed to be designed) at the outset to explicitly block direct participation by nearly every precious metals trading entity on the planet except for a limited number of London-based bullion bank members of the LBMA.
LBMA Silver Price fiasco
First up, on Monday 10 April, buried at the end of a Reuters News precious metals market daily news wrap was a very brief snippet of news referring to an incident which dogged the LBMA Silver Price during Monday’s daily auction (an auction which starts at midday London time). According to Reuters:
“silver prices slipped after the LBMA silver price benchmark auction was paused for 17 minutes after a circuit breaker was triggered when the auction price moved outside of the spot range, the CME said in a statement.”
What exactly the CME meant is unclear because whatever statement Reuters was referring to has not been released on the CME Group website or elsewhere, and Reuters did not write a separate news article about the incident.
To recap, the LBMA Silver Price is administered by Thomson Reuters on a calculation platform run by the CME Group, and operated on a contract basis on behalf of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA). However, there is nothing anywhere on the CME’s LBMA Silver Price web page, or on the Thomson Reuters LBMA Silver Price web page, or on the LBMA website, in the form of a statement, comment or otherwise, referring to this ‘circuit breaker’ that persisted for ’17 minutes’ in the LBMA Silver Price auctionduring which time the ‘auction price moved outside of the spot range‘
On its calculation platform, CME makes use of a pricing algorithm to automatically calculate a price for each round of the LBMA Silver Price auction (excluding the first auction round). From page 8 of its LBMA Silver Price Methodology Guide:
“3.7 Starting Price
The initial auction price value is determined by the auction platform operator by comparing multiple Market Data sources prior to the auction opening to form a consensus price based on the individual sources of Market Data. The auction platform operator enters the initial auction price before the first round of the auction begins….”
“3.4 End of Round Comparison
If the difference between the total buy and sell quantity is greater than the tolerance value, the auction platform determines that the auction is not balanced, automatically cancels orders entered in the auction round by all participants, calculates a new price, and starts a new round with the new price.”
There is also a manual price override facility which can be invoked if needed:
3.8 Manual Price Override
In exceptional circumstances, CME Benchmark Europe Ltd can overrule the automated new price of the next auction round in cases when more significant or finer changes are required. When doing so, the auction platform operator will refer to a composition of live Market Data sources while the auction is in progress.”
As to why the “auction platform operator” did not invoke these manual override powers and seek market data sources during the time in which the silver auction was ‘stuck’ for 17 minutes is unclear. A 17 minute pause would presumably be, in the CME’s words, ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Unfortunately, neither the CME website, the Thomson Reuters website, or the LBMA website provides intra-round pricing data for the LBMA Silver Price, so anyone who doesn’t have a subscription to the live data of the auction is well and truly left in the dark as to what actually happened on Monday 10 April. Unlike the LBMA Gold Price auction which at least provides an ‘Auction Transparency Report’ for each auction (see below), the LBMA Silver Price auction is sorely lacking in any public transparency whatsoever.
But what is clear from the Reuters information snippet is that the LBMA Silver Price auction on Monday 10 April suffered a serious trading glitch, that saw the prices that were being formed in the auction deviate from where the silver spot price was trading during that time. This price deviation suggests a lack of trading liquidity in the auction and/or an inability of the participants to hedge their trades in other trading venues. As to whether the final LBMA Silver Price that was derived and published as the daily benchmark price on 10 March was outside the spot range (and above or below spot) is not mentioned in the Reuters report.
The complete opacity about this incident is concerning but not really surprising since nearly everything in the London precious metals markets is shrouded in secrecy, and corporate communication in this area is truly abysmal.
Recalling that Thomson Reuters and CME announced in early March that they are abruptly pulling out of the contract for administrating and calculating the LBMA Silver Price, this latest fiasco is unwelcome news for the LBMA – CME – Thomson Reuters triumvirate, and raises further questions for the FCA as to whether this Silver auction and benchmark should even be allowed to continue in its present or similar form.
LBMA Gold Price fiasco
Turning to the London gold auction, on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April, the LBMA Gold Price auction (which starts at 3:00pm London time) experienced what can only be described as a shocking and serious trading fiasco which has real world consequences for all trading entities that use the LBMA Gold Price Benchmark reference price (and there are many that do so). As a reminder, ICE benchmark Administration (IBA) administers the daily LBMA Gold Price auctions on behalf of the LBMA.
“London’s gold price benchmark fixed some $12 below the spot price on Tuesday afternoon as the auction appeared to become locked in a downward spiral. From an initial $1,265.75, close to the spot price at the time, the auction price ratcheted steadily lower before fixing at $1,252.90 in the ninth round. From the fifth round to the eighth the bid and offer volumes remained frozen, unable to match.“
“This came a day after ICE introduced clearing for the LBMA Gold Price auction”
Reuters concludes its article by noting that the ICE clearing was introduced:“before several participating banks had the necessary systems in place.”
“As a result, China Construction Bank, Societe Generale, Standard Chartered and UBS are yet to confirm a date for their participation in the cleared auction.. ICE declined to comment. The LBMA, which owns the intellectual property rights to the auction, was not immediately available to comment.”
This forced reduction in the number of participants in the auction seems to be relevant to the issue and therefore requires further scrutiny.
ICE Central Clearing – Foisted on the LBMA Gold Price auction?
In mid-October 2016 during the LBMA precious metals conference in Singapore, ICE Benchmark Administration announced that it would introduce central clearing into the London Gold Price by utilizing a series of daily futures contracts which it planned to launch in February 2017. The introduction of central clearing into the auction was initially planned for March 2017.
“IBA gave a central clearing update to the Committee, notifying them that the cleared instrument would be launched in January 2017 and the auction trades could be routed there from March 2017. The Committee were informed that IBA had spoken to every bank and every bank wanted to move. Discussion moved to the technical implications for this new model and IBA’s primary wish to keep running a healthy auction.”
“From March 2017, subject to regulatory review, centrally cleared settlement will be available for transactions which originate from IBA’s gold auction underlying the LBMA Gold Price.
This will give firms the choice of settling their trades bilaterally against each counterparty (as they currently do), or submitting their trades to clearing and settling versus the clearing house. This mechanism removes the requirement for firms to have bilateral credit lines in place with all of the other Direct Participants in the auction.
Central clearing opens the auction to a broader cross-section of the market. It also facilitates greater volume in the auction.“
By the end of March 2017, the above statement had been altered from March 2017 to “Q2 2017” with ICE pushing back the launch date for the introduction of central clearing:
“From Q2 2017, subject to regulatory review, centrally cleared settlement will be available for transactions which originate from IBAs gold auction underlying the LBMA Gold Price….”
Reuters again covered these ICE clearing delays in a series of articles during March, highlighting the fact that 4 of the 13 banks that are direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction were not ready for the introduction of central clearing due to delays in making unspecified changes to their internal IT systems that would allow such central clearing processing. So anybody who had been reading these Reuters articles would have been aware that there were risks on the horizon in terms of some of the LBMA Gold Price auction participants being slow in being ready for the changes.
“U.S.-based exchange operator ICE has already pushed back the launch of its service by several weeks to allow the banks and brokers who participate in the auction to adapt their IT systems, four sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.”
“Sources at many participant banks said that they were unhappy with the speed at which ICE was seeking to introduce clearing, which require investment in IT processes and back office systems and raise complex compliance issues.”
“However, at least four of the 14 banks and brokers who participate in the LBMA Gold Price auction will still not be ready to use the new system.
Banks that are not ready would be suspended from the auction until they have the necessary IT infrastructure in place or would have to participate through other players who could clear deals, according to the sources.
ICE’s readiness to provoke such disruption illustrates how much it wants to avoid further delays that could torpedo its ambitions to become the dominant exchange in London’s vast bullion market, market sources said”
“two sources told Reuters that ICE had again delayed and there was now no set start date.”
“Sources earlier told Reuters that Societe Generale, Standard Chartered, ICBC Standard Bank and China Construction Bank would not be ready to clear the LBMA auction in time for April 3.”
Again interestingly, ICE’s desire to promote its own gold futures contracts was seen as a primary driver for trying to rush through the introduction of central clearing for the gold auction, as doing so would add volume to ICE’s daily gold futures contracts:
“market sources say ICE plans to use clearing of the LBMA Gold Price auction, which it administers, to funnel business to its contracts and give it a head start over rivals.”
As a reminder, ICE and CME have both recently launched gold futures contracts connected to the London market, and the London Metal Exchange (LME) plans to launch its own suite of London gold futures contracts in early June.
Central clearing uses exchange for physical (EFP) transactions in the daily futures contracts which are then cleared at ICE Clear US. The futures have daily settlement each day between 3:00 pm and 3:05 pm London time. But how the whole process ties together is still quite puzzling. An email to the IBA CEO asking for details of how the futures are linked to the auction went unanswered.
So what was this downward spiral that the LBMA Gold Price auction experienced on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April when it became, in the words of Reuters, locked in a downward spiral?
Let’s look at the ICE Auction Transparency Reports for the few days before and during the 11 April afternoon fiasco. These reports show the number of auction rounds, the number of participants,and the bid and offer volumes for each round as well as the price at the end of each round.
Fourteen entities are now authorized to be direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction, 13 of which are banks, the other being new participant INTL FCStone since early April. INTL FCStone is a financial services company that has a slant towards commodities. The 13 banks are:
Bank of China
Bank of Communications
China Construction Bank
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC)
HSBC Bank USA
JPMorgan Chase Bank (London Branch)
The Bank of Nova Scotia – ScotiaMocatta
Unlike the old London Gold Fixing which had 5 member banks that were obliged to always turn up (and since 2004 dial in) for every auction, this LBMA Gold Price auction does not require all the authorized participants to dial-in. Most of the time, far fewer than the full contingent turn up. For example on Friday 7 April, 8 banks turned up at the morning auction while only 7 banks turned up at the afternoon auction (i.e only a 50% turnout). However, Friday 7 April is also relevant since that was the last day before ICE introduced central clearing to the gold auction.
Fast forwarding to the morning gold auction on Monday 10 April when ICE first introduced central clearing, you can see from the below auction report that only 5 banks participated. This is the same small number that took part in the former London Gold Fixing which was run by the infamous and scandal ridden London Gold Market Fixing Limited and which consisted of Deutsche Bank, Barclays, HSBC, Scotiabank and Société Générale.
The reason the turnouts after the introduction of central clearing are so low is that 4 of the direct participant banks have been excluded from the auction due to not being ready to implement central clearing – a fact predicted by Reuters News in March. This means that the usual number of between 7-10 banks participating in the auction has now been reduced by 4, as four banks cannot take part. As Reuters said on 21 March “Banks that are not ready would be suspended from the auction until they have the necessary IT infrastructure in place”.
The irony of this debacle is that the participating banks all already have bilateral credit limits with each other and so don’t need to do central clearing in the auction. Only new /future direct participants which do not have bilateral credit lines technically need to utilize the clearing solution.
Central clearing is supposed to make it easier for a far wider range and number of participants to take part. But if this entails enhancements to IT systems that some of the most sophisticated investment banks on the planet are struggling with, what hope is there for other precious metals trading entities to participate.
But some reason – probably to try to kickstart the trading volume in its daily gold futures contracts – ICE has made it mandatory for all existing direct participants (the bullion banks) to open clearing accounts and get their IT systems in shape to use clearing.
“Central clearing for the auction is enabled by effecting Exchange for Physical (“EFP”) transactions into the new physically settled, loco London gold daily futures contract which is traded on ICE Futures U.S. The EFPs establish positions in the futures contract which are cleared and can be physically delivered at ICE Clear U.S“
and Direct participants (DPs) “must establish a clearing account with an ICE Clear U.S. Clearing member” so as to be able to use this account to clear auction trades.
However, “DPs may still maintain credit lines to settle bilaterally against other DPs” and “DPs can elect, for each counterparty, to clear or settle their auction transactions bilaterally.” If this is so, then why the need to force these banks to open a clearing account and push through complex IT changes?
The ICE LBMA Gold Price web page now includes a double asterisk next to the names of the culprit banks that are not ready for central clearing. These banks are China Construction Bank, Société Générale, Standard Chartered, and UBS. the double asterisk states that “** Date of participating in the cleared auction to be determined.”
So now, more than 2 years after the LBMA Gold Price has been introduced, we are back to a situation where only 5 large bullion banks are participating in a daily gold price auction, an auction which has huge ramifications for the reference pricing of gold across myriad gold markets around the world.
Both of the auctions on 10 April finished within the first round, with buy volume and sell volume in balance, so there was no need for subsequent auction rounds.
Turning to the morning auction of Tuesday 11 April, only a measly 4 banks took part in the first round of the auction, and 5 participants took part in rounds 2 and 3. The bid and ask volumes were not that much out of balance, and the auction finished after 3 rounds.
Turning to the afternoon auction of 11 April, the price action commentary provided by Reuters was as follows:
“from an initial $1,265.75, close to the spot price at the time, the auction price ratcheted steadily lower before fixing at $1,252.90 in the ninth round. From the fifth round to the eighth the bid and offer volumes remained frozen, unable to match.“
Below you can see visually see what happened round by round from the first round price of $1,265.75 where there was zero bid volume and 125,217 ozs (nearly 4 tonnes) of ask volume, through the fifth to (actually) the ninth rounds where bid volume was an unchanging 92,873 ozs and ask volume was an unchanging 107,090 ozs, but still the price fell from $1,260.50 to fix in round 9 at $1,252.90, i,e, the price fell $7.60 in 2 minutes while the volumes didn’t budge. And most critically, the fixing price was $1252.90 while the spot price was trading at $1267 at that time.
“the benchmark ended up being set almost $15 dollars below where spot prices were trading at the time. The PM Gold Price showed a benchmark at $1,252.90 an ounce; however at the time, spot gold prices were trading around $1,267 an ounce, with prices heading towards a new five-month high.”
How could this happen? How could the auction price diverge so much from the spot price at that time and how could the auction go through round after round lowering the price while the bid and ask volumes did not change and while the spot price was actually far higher than any of the prices in the auction?
Kitco’s explanation, which is mostly based on the view of one person, Jeff Christian of the CPM Group, put the problem down to “poorly conceived regulations and a faulty price discovery mechanism“, i.e. a lack of liquidity due to banks being scared off by tightening regulations, and that this “sharp reduction in liquidity during the auction process” is causing “a large discrepancy in prices“. Christian also said that “because of regulations, banks and other financial institutions are backing away from becoming market makers.”
But this reasoning of backing away due to regulations is not backed up by the facts for the simple reason that banks have continued to join the LBMA Gold Price auction at a rapid rate over the last 2 years, i.e. there is a trend of ever more banks applying to be authorized to participate in the auction. For example, since the auction was launched on 20 March 2015 with 6 banks, 9 more banks have signed up JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Standard Chartered, Bank of China, ICBC, China Construction Bank, Bank of Communications, Toronto Dominion Bank, and INTL FCStone. Note that Barclays was one of the original six banks in the auction but dropped out after it downscaled its the precious metals business in London. There are also the same number of LBMA Market Makers now as there were two years ago, in both cases 13 LBMA Market Makers.
Kitco’s article also fails to mention the central clearing implementation fiasco brought about by ICE’s rush to channel activity into its gold futures contracts and Kitco even fails to realize that 4 banks were suspended from the auction due to this central clearing issue.
Another factor relevant to the screwed up afternoon auction on 11 April that should be considered is the fact that in mid-March 2017, ICE Benchmark Administration introduced a price algorithm into the LBMA Gold Price auction. This fact has been totally ignored by the financial media.
From a human Chairperson to an automated Algorithm
Up until mid March 2017, the LBMA Gold Price auction used a human ‘independent chairperson’ to choose the opening price in the auction and also the auction price in each subsequent round. The identities of these independent chairpersons have never been divulged by ICE nor the LBMA.
Critically, sometime during the 3rd week of March 2017, ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) introduced a pricing algorithm into the LBMA Gold Price auction. This change in procedure (moving from an auction chairperson to an auction pricing algorithm) was not actively highlighted by either ICE or the LBMA but is clear from looking at Internet Archive imprints of the ICE LBMA Gold Price webpage.
“The auction process has an independent chairperson, appointed by IBA to determine the price for each round and ensure that the price responds appropriately to market conditions.”
See screenshot below for the same statement – taken from the same webpage:
Bullet point 1 of the Auction Process for the 9 March version of the webpage also refers to the chairperson as being responsible for setting the starting price and the price of each subsequent round “in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction.”
But by 16 March, when the next imprint of the LBMA Gold Price page was made by the Internet Archive, the reference in the methodology section to an independent chairperson had been fully deleted, and bullet point 1 had been changed from mentioning a chairperson to discussing an algorithm, specifically changed to “IBA sets the starting price and the price for each round using an algorithm that takes into account current market conditions and the activity in the auction.”
See screenshot below for the same statement – taken from the same webpage:
So if there is an algorithm that is taking into account current market conditions in addition to activity in the auction, why did this algorithm not take the current spot prices into account over rounds 4 – 9 of the LBMA Gold Price auction on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April?
Furthermore, for such a major change to the methodology and auction process in an auction whose benchmark price is widely used in the gold world, it’s very surprising that neither ICE, nor the LBMA, nor the London financial media mentioned this substantial algorithmic change.
In early December 2016, ICE published an LBMA GOLD PRICE Methodology Consultation in which one of the consultation’s proposed changes was “the introduction of an algorithm to determine the price for each auction round“.
The December 2016 document noted that:
“IBA’s auction process is currently that the auction chair sets the price for each Round in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction”
“IBA currently has a panel of auction chairs who are independent of any firm associated with the auction, including Direct Participants. The chairs are externally sourced but work with IBA to deliver a robust process for determination of the LBMA Gold Price.
The chairs use their extensive market experience to set the round prices based on a pricing framework agreed with IBA. IBA chose to operate the auction using human chairs to make sure that the price could respond appropriately to market conditions from the outset.
IBA’s feedback from the market was that, at least in the early stages, the professional judgement of a human chairman was needed.“
“After operating the auction for more than a year, IBA started to develop an algorithm to set the auction’s starting price and subsequent round prices. IBA has now been testing and refining the algorithm over a number of months“
As per the proposal, the algorithm would replace the human chair, after which:
“Each auction will continue to be supervised by IBA’s analysts, and, if for any reason an auction did not progress as expected, IBA’s existing safeguards would be deployed to protect the integrity of the auction and the LBMA Gold Price benchmark“
These safeguards were stated as being three, namely:
– Pause the auction and restart, to give Participants an opportunity to contact clients or re-evaluate their positions
– Increase the imbalance threshold, if it appears that the auction will otherwise not finish
– Cancel an order, if it is compromising the integrity of the process and the relevant participant cannot be reached.
The proposals were pencilled in for implementation in Quarter 1, 2017.
Following the consultation, a “Methodology Consultation Feedback” document was published on the ICE Benchmark Administration website. One feedback respondent was concerned about who would be overseeing the daily auctions in the absence of a human chairperson, to which ICE answered:
“IBA can confirm that the auction will always be supervised by at least two IBA analysts. This approach is consistent with how we operate our other benchmarks.
Our aim is to put the auction on auto-pilot, not to make it driverless.
Unfortunately, from the wider gold market’s perspective, the LBMA Gold Price auction on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April does indeed appear to have been ‘driverless‘ as it “did not progress as expected“, so it is now up to the LBMA and ICE to establish what the ‘IBA analysts’ were up to behind the driving wheel that day.
On its website, ICE states that the LBMA Gold Price methodology is “reviewed by the LBMA Gold Price Oversight Committee as documented in its Terms of Reference.” This Oversight Committee should also explain to the gold world what actually happened on the afternoon of 11 April.
Additionally, I find no explanation on ICE’s LBMA Gold Price webpage as to how exactly the automated algorithm works, what its logic rules are, how it was programmed etc.
The trading glitch with the LBMA Silver Price on Monday 10 April seems to have been completely missed by London’s financial media except for the brief reference by Reuters. The fact that there is no information on the CME, Thomson Reuters and LBMA websites about the issue should raise concern for users of this benchmark and for the UK’s regulator, the FCA. In an ideal world, there should be a full ‘outage’ report published on each of the 3 websites explaining what happened, but this will not happen in the shadowy and secretive London Silver Market.
Perhaps the auction price divergence in the LBMA Silver Price stems from a lack of liquidity brought on by the limited presence of auction participants, or due to the inability or unwillingness of participants to hedge or arbitrage their auction trades against the London OTC spot or other trading venues? The simple thing to do would be for CME, Thomson Reuters and the LBMA to explain themselves since this would minimize guesswork and to provide global silver market entities with clarity. Anything short of a full explanation by the parties concerned is irresponsible.
For the LBMA Gold Price auction, ICE Benchmark Administration needs to release a full ‘outage’ report and explanation on what exactly happened in the afternoon auction on 11 April and explain to the global gold market whether the introduction of central clearing was in any way responsible for the price divergence, and whether there are any conflicts of interest in trying to get banks to use its daily gold futures contracts. While they are at it, ICE should fully explain how the recent introduction of a pricing algorithm impacts the gold auction and whether this too had an impact on the auction price entering a downward spiral.
As the LBMA Silver Price and LBMA Gold Price are both Regulated Benchmarks, the FCA regulator needs to step up to the plate and for once show that it is on the side of the users of these benchmarks and not the powerful London banks.
Both of these auctions require full transparency and ease of direct participation by the full spectrum of the world’s gold and silver trading entities. Currently, they fall far short of these goals.
On Friday 3 March 2017, in a surprise announcement with implications for the global silver market, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) informed its members that the current administrator and calculation agent of its recently launched LBMA Silver Price auction, Thomson Reuters and the CME Group respectively, will be pulling out of providing their services to the problematic London-based silver price benchmark within the near future. Thomson Reuters and the CME Group issued identical statements.
This is surprising because Thomson Reuters and the CME Group only began administering / calculating the LBMA Silver Price auction two and a half years ago in August 2014, when, amid much hubris, the duo were awarded the contract after a long-drawn-out and high-profile tender process. Notably, the Thomson Reuters / CME contract with the LBMA was for a 5-year term running up to and into 2019. So the duo are now pulling out mid-way through a contract cycle.
More surprisingly, in their statements of 3 March, the LBMA / Thomson Reuters and CME allude to the European Benchmark Regulation being in some way responsible for the hasty departure. However, given that the units of CME and Thomson Reuters that are parties to the LBMA contract are their specialist benchmark units “CME Benchmark Europe Limited” and “Thomson Reuters Benchmark Services Limited”, which specialise in administering and calculating benchmarks, this excuse makes no sense.
In essence, this development is an embarrassment for all concerned and could lead to further reputational damage for the parties involved. It also now re-focuses market scrutiny on an area which the LBMA and its associates could well wish to forget, i.e. the former London silver fixing run by the infamous London Silver Market Fixing Limited, a company which itself is still one of the defendants, along with HSBC, Bank of Nova Scotia and Deutsche Bank, in a live New York class action suit that is scrutinizing the manipulation of the London silver price.
LBMA Silver Price: A Regulated Benchmark
Note that the LBMA Silver Price benchmark is now a “Regulated Benchmark” under United Kingdom HM Treasury Legislation, and is one of 8 financial market benchmarks regulated by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). So this is not some backwater obscure benchmark that we are talking about here. This is a benchmark with far-reaching effects on the global precious metals markets and a sister of the LBMA Gold Price benchmark. The reference prices from these benchmarks are used from everything from valuing Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) to being the price reference points in ISDA swaps and bullion bank structured products such as barrier options.
According to the LBMA’s usual public relations mouthpiece Reuters, which relayed the news to the broader market on 3 March, the LBMA will be:
“looking to identify a new provider in the summer, and have the new platform up and running in the autumn”
This dramatic “exit stage right” by Thomson Reuters and the CME Group is a far cry from their initial and continued corporate spin of being committed to the silver price auction, which they claimed both at auction launch in August 2014, and also as recently as 2016 when they grovelled with promises of process improvement and wider participation in the auction in the wake of the silver price manipulation fiasco in the LBMA Silver Price auction on 28 January 2016.
On 15 August 2014, the day the LBMA Silver Price auction was launched, William Knottenbelt, MD at CME Group stated:
“Through our existing relationships with market participants and the broader silver marketplace we are uniquely positioned to provide a seamless transition for the spot silver benchmark in London.”
“CME Group has a long and successful history of offering benchmark risk management and price discovery solutions for the global precious metals markets.”
Then, on 22 March 2016, when CME and Thomson Reuters introduced some changes to the auction in the wake of the 28 January 2016 auction price manipulation, both parties released more spin on their continued commitment to the auction. Thomson Reuters’ Head of Benchmark Services, Tobias Sproehnle, in a statement that now looks to be hollow, said:
“these changes together with a comprehensive consultation with the broader silver community – producers, intermediaries and consumers – are a further demonstration of Thomson Reuters and CME Group’s commitment to providing innovative, market leading benchmarks for the Silver market.“
While Gavin Lee, the head of CME Benchmark Services, led with an equally hubristic statement that:
“in consultation with Silver market participants, we are always looking for new ways to develop this benchmark further“
These statements from CME and Thomson Reuters, less than a year ago, run totally contrary to the fact that the duo are now going to abandon the LBMA Silver Price auction ship, which will necessitate the appointment of a replacement administrator and calculation agent. Where is the continued “commitment” to the silver benchmark and the silver market that they were we eager to espouse last March?
Why the Hasty Departure?
According to the Reuters news report last Friday 3 March:
“A spokesman for Thomson Reuters confirmed the company was stepping down from the process. CME could not immediately be reached for comment.”
Not very informative or cooperative from either party when one of the providers was not even available to explain its exit rationale, and the other merely confirms a fact to its in-house news arm, a fact which the LBMA had already announced earlier that day to its members.
“The forthcoming European Benchmark Regulation, due to be implemented in January 2018, prompted a review of the existing LBMA Silver Price administration arrangements and, in consultation with the LBMA, CME Group and Thomson Reuters have decided to step down from their respective roles in relation to the LBMA Silver Price auction.“
Before briefly looking at the relevance of this “European Benchmark Regulation”, which the Reuters news article even failed to mention, its notable that the CME / Thomson Reuters early withdrawal was also covered on 3 March by the MetalBulletin website.
According to MetalBulletin (subscription site), the above statement by CME is apparently part of an identical statement which the LBMA released to it members on Friday 3 March (the LBMA statement).
MetalBulletin adds in its commentary that:
“CME is looking to streamline its precious metals division, with contracts in this area being its fastest growing asset. The exchange wants to focus on its core products, Metal Bulletin understands.”
What MetalBulletin means by this I don’t know. The logic doesn’t make any sense. The sentence doesn’t even make sense. Benchmarks are a core product of CME group. CME even states that it offers:
“the widest range of global benchmark products across all major asset classes”
CME Benchmark Europe Limited was specifically set up in 2014 to provide the calculation platform for the LBMA Silver Price. Furthermore, CME has just launched a suite of silver and gold futures contracts for the London market (launched in late January 2017), the silver contract being the “London Spot Silver Futures (code SSP)“. Even though these CME contracts have had no trading interest so far, the CME claims that it is currently “working with major banks to synchronize their systems to start trading” these contracts (London Spot Silver Futures and London Spot Gold Futures).
So why would CME want to voluntarily ditch the provision of a high-profile London silver benchmark, when it could attain trading synergies between the LBMA Silver Price and its new London silver futures contracts, or at the very least improve brand recognition in the market? And not to forget CME and Thomson Reuters claim a”commitment to providing innovative, market leading benchmarks for the Silver market“.
European Benchmark Regulation
Turning to the new “European Benchmark Regulation”, what exactly is it, and why would it be relevant for the LBMA and CME and Thomson Reuters to mention the European benchmark Regulation in the context CME and Thomson Reuters pulling out of the LBMA Silver Price auction?
At its outset, the European Benchmark Regulation was proposed by the European Commission. The Commission’s proposal was also issued in coordination with a range of entities and initiatives such as MiFID, the Market Abuse Directive, the benchmark setting processes of the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) and European Banking Authority (EBA), and also the IOSCO financial benchmark principles.
improve governance and controls over the benchmark process, in particular to ensure that administrators avoid conflicts of interest, or at least manage them adequately
improve the quality of input data and methodologies used by benchmark administrators
ensure that contributors to benchmarks and the data they provide are subject to adequate controls, in particular to avoid conflicts of interest
protect consumers and investors through greater transparency and adequate rights of redress.
The Regulation aims to address potential issues at each stage of the benchmark process and will apply in respect of:
the provision of benchmarks
the contribution of input data to a benchmark, and
the use of a benchmark within the EU.
All of these goals aspired to by the legislation of the European Benchmark Regulation seem reasonable and would benefit users of the LBMA Silver Price auction, so given the above, it seems very bizarre that CME and Thomson Reuters and the LBMA stated last Friday 3 March that:
“The forthcoming European Benchmark Regulation, due to be implemented in January 2018, prompted a review of the existing LBMA Silver Price administration arrangements…“
Remember that the CME and Thomson Reuters service providers to the LBMA Silver Price are their specialist benchmark units “CME Benchmark Europe Limited” and “Thomson Reuters Benchmark Services Limited”. That is what these units do, administer and calculate benchmarks. This European benchmark Regulation has been known about for a few years. Especially known about by the benchmark units of CME and Thomson Reuters. The Regulation didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere last week, as the above statement is appearing to hint at.
And why such a brief and unclear statement from CME, Thomson Reuters and the LBMA? Is this European Benchmark Regulation just an excuse being thrown out to distract from other issues that might really be behind CME and Thomson Reuters stepping down.
Or perhaps CME and Thomson Reuters are aware of issues within the current administration of the LBMA Silver Price that would make it difficult to comply with the new legislation or that would make it too onerous to comply? But such rationale doesn’t make sense either because why are CME and Thomson Reuters not bailing out of the all the benchmarks that they are involved in? Furthermore, if the European Benchmark Regulation is a factor, why would any other benchmark service provider such as ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) bother to pitch in the LBMA’s forthcoming tender process to find a replacement for Thomson Reuters and CME?
Perhaps CME and Thomson Reuters are worried about future reputation damage of being associated with the LBMA Silver Price due to some brewing scandal? Or perhaps the powerful bullion banks within the LBMA wanted to scupper any change that there will ever be wider participation or central clearing in any future version of the auction?
I will leave it to readers to do their own research on this and draw their own conclusions.
A Banking Cartel vs. Wider Auction Participation
One issue which has dogged the LBMA Silver Price auction since launch is that it never gained any level of “wider participation” or market representative participation. There are only 7 bullion banks authorised by the LBMA to be direct participants in the auction, and there are zero direct participants from the silver mining, silver refineries, and silver sectors.
This is despite the LBMA, CME and Thomson Reuters all misleading the global silver market on this issue on many occasions, and claiming that there would be very wide participation in the auction after it was launched. See BullionStar blog “The LBMA Silver Price – Broken Promises on Wider Participation and Central Clearing” for a huge amount of factual evidence to back up this statement, including webcasts by CME, Thomson Reuters and the LBMA, and an interview by Reuters with LBMA consultant Jonathan Spall, formerly of Barclays. Here are a few examples:
The LBMA’s Ruth Crowell was claiming back in July and August 2014 that they were interested in having 111 direct participants:
“clear demand for increased direct participation, and we had 25% of those 444 coming back saying they would be interested, and we’re still interested in having all of those participants on board”
“The advantage with centralised clearing, particularly for the pricing mechanism, is that we can really exponentially grow the amount of direct participants“
Jonathan Spall, LBMA Consultant stated that:
“The hope of course is that we get many more participants in the new benchmark process….while it is likely that we will start by having banks involved it is ultimately hoped that the wider market will participate, be they refiners, miners etc.“
“Ultimately – and as I said before – the intention is that there is much wider participation. So yes, refiners, miners etc.“
Harriett Hunnable, then of the CME Group, stated:
“So this is really the new world, this is not the old fixing…..this is wider participation…and the London bullion market is really encouraging that…this is the new world, or the LBMA Silver Price!”.
According to the CME / LBMA / Thomson Reuters presentations, there was supposed to be a “phase 3 introduction of centralised clearing”
“Central counterparty clearing will enable greater direct participation in the London Silver Price“
In summary, central clearing would allow direct participants to participate directly in the auction without the need for bi-lateral credit lines. However, the plan for central clearing was quietly dropped. The CME and Thomson Reuters have now had 32 months in which to introduce central clearing into the silver auction and it hasn’t happened. Nor will it now. The fact of the matter is that the LBMA banks do not want wider participation and they don’t want central clearing of auction trades either. These banks, which at the end of the day are just costly intermediaries, essentially want to monopolise the silver auction and prevent wider participation, and prevent true silver price discovery. Could it be the banks through their LBMA front that have sabotaged the contract with CME and Thomson Reuters so as to reset the contract and re-start another tender process that will ensure that no wider participation can ever see the light of day?
It’s also important to note that there is no way for miners and refiners to be direct participants in the auction. This is because the LBMA has designed the auction participant rules to keep out refiners and miners (and anyone else that is not a bullion bank). The rules are specifically designed so that only bullion banks can satisfy the LBMA’s Benchmark Participant criteria. See section 3.13 of the LBMA Silver Price auction methodology document accessible here.
Currently only 7 bullion banks are direct participants in the auction, namely HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of Nova Scotia (ScotiaMocatta), Toronto Dominion, UBS, Morgan Stanley, and China Construction Bank. Most of these banks are very influential on the LBMA Management Committee. HSBC, Scotia and Mitsui were in the auction from Day 1 on 15 August 2014. UBS joined the auction on 26 September 2014, JP Morgan Chase Bank joined on 14 October 2014, Toronto Dominion Bank joined on 6 November 2014. Mitsui left in either late 2015 or January 2016 (the exact date is unclear). China Construction Bank only joined the auction on 6 May 2016.
Lastly, Morgan Stanley only joined the LBMA Silver Price auction on 25 October 2016 (which is just 4 months ago), at which point the LBMA / CME and Thomson Reuters had the audacity to spin that 7 LBMA bullion banks trading in a shadowy auction of unallocated silver accounts in London somehow represents the global silver market:
CME: “The addition of another member brings greater depth and diversity to the market and underlines the ongoing globalisation of the Silver Price as a leading, liquid precious metals benchmark.”
Thomson Reuters: “With the addition of Morgan Stanley to the panel, the LBMA Silver Price provides even deeper insight into the global silver market. We continue to welcome new participants to this essential mechanism for the markets.”
LBMA: “They [Morgan Stanley] add depth and liquidity to the auction and I look forward to other market participants joining in the future.”
LBMA Silver Price is NOT Representative of Silver Market
But, to reiterate (and as was stated previously in this blog), the LBMA Silver Price auction isnot representative of the global Silver Market whatsoever, and it does not meet some of the simplest IOSCO benchmark requirements:
“IOSCO benchmark principles state that a benchmark should be a reliable representation of interest, i.e. that it should be representative of the market it is trying to measure. Interest is measured on metrics such as market concentration. In the Thomson Reuters methodology document (linked above), on page 11 under benchmark design principles, the authors estimate that there are 500-1000 active trading entities in the global silver market.”
The Thomson Reuters methodology document from August 2014 also admitted that “volumes in the LBMA Silver Price are a fraction of the daily volume traded in the silver futures and OTC markets”.
Why then are 7 LBMA bullion banks allowed to monopolize the representation of 500 – 1000 active trading entities from the global silver market within the auction, an auction that its worth remembering generates a silver reference price which is used as a global silver price reference and pricing source?
Refiners and Miners
Based on the current rules, the vast majority of the world’s silver refiners cannot directly take part in the LBMA Silver Price auction.
Only 8 precious metals refiners are Full Members of the LBMA while 25 refiners are associates of the LBMA. Of the 8 full members, 5 of these refiners are on the LBMA refiner Referee panel, namely, Argor-heraeus, Metalor and PAMP from Switzerland, Rand Refinery from South Africa, and Tanaka Kikinzoki Kogyo from Japan. These refiners were added to the panel as LBMA Associates in 2003, and were only made Full Members in 2012. The only reason they happened to be fast-tracked as full members of the LBMA was due to their status as Referees for the LBMA good delivery list. Even the other major Swiss based refinery Valcambi is still not a full member of the LBMA.
Based on the current participant criteria of the Silver auction, where only full LBMA members could conceivably become direct participants, 25 of the refiners that are LBMA Associates cannot directly take part in the auction even if they wanted to. Candidates for Full LBMA Membership also have to jump through a number of hoops based on sponsorship by existing members, business relationships, due diligence, and involvement in the precious metals markets.
For a refiner to even become a LBMA associate, the refiner must have already attained Good Delivery Status for its silver or gold bars. There are about 80 refineries on the LBMA’s current Good Delivery List for silver. The chance of the vast majority of these refiners taking part in the LBMA silver auction is nil since not only are they not LBMA full members, they aren’t even LBMA associates.
Based on the current auction criteria, it’s without doubt literally impossible for nearly all silver producers / miners on the planet to directly participate in the LBMA Silver Price auction. Precious metal mining companies are not normally officially connected to the LBMA, and would more naturally be members of the Silver Institute or World Gold Council or another mining sector organization. So it’s confusing as to why the LBMA even mentions mining companies as possible auction participants since there are no mining companies that are Full Members of the LBMA, so they cannot be participants in the silver auction. The only mining companies that are even “Associates” of the LBMA are Anglogold Ashanti and Coeur Mining.
In 2014, Coeur Mining’s treasurer, referring to the LBMA Silver auction said:
“We hope to have the opportunity to become a direct participant down the road and look forward to working with the LBMA, CME and other silver producers to drive the evolution of this market.”
The unfortunate Coeur Mining now looks like it has been strung along by the LBMA with empty promises that it can somehow someday participate in the silver auction, but this is literally a fiction given the way the auction rules are currently set up.
In its announcement on 3 March, the LBMA said that it will shortly launch a tender process to appoint a replacement provider. The LBMA told Reuters News:
“We would be looking to identify a new provider in the summer, and have the new platform up and running in the autumn”
However, given the abysmal track record of the LBMA Silver Price, the question that should really be asked at this time is why is the bullion bank controlled LBMA even allowed to be in charge of such an important “Regulated Benchmark” as a global silver price benchmark, a benchmark that has far-reaching effects on global buyers and sellers of silver.
Take a brief look back at how the last tender process run by the LBMA for the London silver price was handled.
“Not just our members, but ISDA members, and any legitimate members of the market were invited to the seminar. We also had observers from the FCA and the Bank of England. We wanted to keep [attendance] as wide-ranging as possible but to avoid anyone who perhaps would be disruptive“
What is this supposed to mean? To prevent anyone attending the seminar who might have a different view on how the global silver price benchmark should be operated that doesn’t align with the view of the LBMA?
The actual process of selecting the winning bid from the shortlist of tender applicants was only open to LBMA Full members and Seminar attendees via a 2nd round voting survey. The independent consultant review that was part of the selection process, was conducted by someone, Jonathan Spall, who was not independent of the former fixings and so should not have been involved in the process.
Promises of wider participation involving refiners and miners were abandoned. Promises of central clearing of auction traded were thrown out the window. Prior to launch, the auction platform was hastily built by Thomson Reuters and CME without an adequate market-wide solution for clearing silver trades. Another of the bidders, Autilla/LME, had a working auction solution which would have allowed wider market participation at August 15 2014 go-live, but this solution was rejected by the LBMA Management Committee, LBMA Market Makers and the LBMA Data Working Group, the groups which had the ultimate say in which applicant won the tender.
There were only 3 participants in the LBMA Silver Price auction (all of them banks) when it was launched in August 2014, and two of which, HSBC and Scotia, were parties to the former London Silver Fixing. The LBMA Silver Price auction was therefore an example of same old wine in a new bottle. The same 2 banks, HSBC and Scotia are now defendants in a silver price manipulation class action suit in New York. There are now only 7 direct participants in the LBMA Silver Price. These are all bullion banks. This is 32 months after the auction has been launched. The LBMA accreditation process specifically prevents refiners and miners from joining the auction. As there are 500 – 1000 trading entities of silver globally, the LBMA Silver Price mechanism is totally unrepresentative of the silver market.
The defection of CME and Thomson Reuters now provides a one-off opportunity for the global silver market to insist that the current scandal ridden current auction be scrapped and taken out of the hands of the bullion bank controlled London Bullion Market Association (LBMA). It is also an opportunity to introduce a proper silver price auction in its place that is structured to allow direct participation by hundreds of silver trading entities such as the world’s silver refiners and miners, an auction that employs central clearing to allow this wider participation, and an auction that is based on trading real physical silver and not the paper credits representing unallocated claims that the participating London bullion banks shunt around between themselves. This could help lead to real silver price discovery in the global silver market. However, the chances of this happening with the LBMA still involved in the new tender process are nil.
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